Media: Beyond Information and Education

By Eugenio Lopez III

Posted at Feb 01 2013 12:19 AM | Updated as of Feb 01 2013 08:19 AM

(Keynote speech at the Pinoy Media Congress Year 8, January 31, 2013)

I like being with young people. It energizes me. The dynamism… the new ideas and insights… and keeping in touch with today’s generation is so important for someone like me whose business is to facilitate communication among our people. And my generation is so different from yours. You are all digital natives and I am at best, a digital migrant. You take the digital world for granted. I take pains to understand every twist and turn, figuring out how to best use technology to improve what we have been doing all those years.

Having just been entitled to a senior citizen’s card, I am tempted to be in a state of denial that all those years have passed. The fact of the matter is, I am as old as Philippine Television --- all 60 years of it. I was a kid when the first locally produced black and white television show was aired on a station that was to become today’s ABS-CBN. I was in college when color television broadcasting was born in this country. I was getting my feet wet as a disc jockey in one of ABS-CBN’s radio stations when the network covered the moon landing with the first man walking on the moon.

Your world today may seem too complicated for those of my generation and you may wonder why we think the way we do about everything. But one thing I am sure of is the presence of universal truths that span generations. Indeed, Robert Fulgum is right… everything we really need to know, we learned in kindergarten. As Fulgum observed, “everything you need to know is in there somewhere... The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation… Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.”

And Fulgum goes on… “Take any of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or your government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if... all governments had a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.”

Perhaps we have a tendency to complicate things as we grow old and in the process forget the essence of life and how we ought to live it. The theme of your congress today is Media: Beyond Information and Education. I guess the ABS-CBN staff who worked on this Congress fell in love with an intellectual pursuit that is however best handled through simplification.

Let me therefore go back to basics.

From where I sit today, I see a nation so different from what it was just three years ago. I see a nation that is more confident of its direction, more determined of the strategy it is taking and more imbued with the moral conviction of its actions. I see a nation about to break out from the debilitating clutches of the past. I also see a nation divided between the old centers of power and a new civil society fighting hard for much needed social change.

And the struggle is not just between people and groups of people but within ourselves. We are all old and new and each side of us struggling for dominance. What makes it all different today is that we somehow managed to find ourselves a leader who is just about as dissociated with self interest as a monk could be. And many of us find it our duty and obligation as a Filipino to help take this moment and use it to finally launch our nation to its rightful place among the family of nations.

This brings us to the topic at hand. What is our role as mass media and as Filipinos? Are these roles complementary or contradictory? Is our role as cut and dried as providing information? Of what value is that information we provide our audience? As for education, what is the extent of media’s responsibility vis-a vis other institutions of society? Then again too, are we not giving traditional media too much attention and responsibility in an era where new social media has taken hold?

Blame it on my age, my upbringing and my experience but I tend to take a more traditional view of media’s role in society. I see media as primarily a means to bring information and entertainment to people in a convenient and cost effective manner. Forgive my bias for commercial media but I am not convinced there is any other model that works best for the good of people anywhere. To paraphrase the saying “Commercial media and its attention to the lowest common denominator is offensive and distasteful until you consider the alternatives.” State owned media not only wastes tax payer money that is better used to provide public services, they have also often served as tools of oppression by those who hold power. Worse, state media has absolutely no credibility. Other means of supporting media such as through charitable foundations have proven too unreliable to enable proper program planning and execution.

Commercial media, on the other hand, thrives through the interplay of market forces and gets its reward through excellence in providing information and entertainment. This is where we are today. We are here because our audience trusts our information and enjoys our tele-novellas. The day we lose their trust and fail to entertain them is the day our bottom line starts bleeding.

But it isn’t always just about the money as some have accused us. We have long recognized our obligation to the public arising from our use of the air lanes, a public resource. This is why successful networks like ABS CBN spend time and money on news and current affairs. A democracy like ours thrives on information – timely and accurate information. Given the nature of our development, it is also necessary to provide a good interpretation of the significance of unfolding events. That too, is a function we must serve.

Education is somewhat trickier for us. Whatever education transpires in media is largely incidental. There are efforts at curriculum based learning like what the ABS-CBN Foundation is doing with e-learning and SKY Foundation is doing with Knowledge Channel. But by and large, the entertainment side of commercial media tends to reflect current social mores rather than attempts to change them. Perhaps there should be a more conscious effort to promote positive social values through tele-novellas but even here it ought to be more subtle than many policy makers and academicians want.

Through the years, we have approached the subject of our social responsibility as a media entity through our motto, “In the service of the Filipino.” To us, this captures the essence of what we are, the reason for our being. The ways and forms of service may change. But our desire, commitment and passion to serve the Filipino will remain. These words are from my father, Eugenio Lopez, Jr. It is our North Star, our constant guide. It defines us and everything we do. It made us expand our horizons beyond our shores to be with Filipinos wherever they may be toiling in this world. It makes us take bold stands on public issues at great risk to personal and corporate survival.

This strong drive to serve the Filipino has often caused enough misunderstanding with the political powers-that-be. In the nature of our personalistic society where one is either a supporter or an enemy of the President of the Republic, taking the side of the people is not always easy. But the trust and confidence of our people have given us the power to stand up in defense of our people’s rights against an oppressive government. I confess to be very traditional in this respect… in believing that the most important function of media in a free society is to protect its people from the abuses of government. No one citizen can stand up to an oppressive government but an independent media standing up to be counted and leading the people in political action ensures the preservation of democracy and its institutions.

Of this sacred function of media, I speak not in theoretical terms. You are all too young to have experienced the martial law years. ABS-CBN and its sister media company, The Manila Chronicle were closed down by the dictatorship of Mr Marcos precisely because we refused to do and call things his way against the interest of our people. We suffered greatly and only found resurrection when the dictator was finally thrown out during the EDSA People Power revolution.

In more recent times, we suffered too when unpopular administrators used their powers to try to make us see things their way. It would have been more financially rewarding and less of a headache to follow the dictates of Malacanang but to do so wouldn’t have been of service to the Filipino.

Today, we live in better times. I personally support President Aquino and specially his efforts to rid the bureaucracy of corruption. I support his economic development programs particularly those that call for more inclusive growth to benefit more of our people. But this does not mean we will always see things his way.

As it is, we see many things still wrong with conditions in our country as would be expected in a developing country like ours. And it is our duty to call these things out, tell the President whenever it is needed that some policies or some actions are not right. This is a role best performed by independent journalists. If there is one principle I inherited from my father that I value intensely it is the need to support and keep the independence of the professional journalists on our staff. We demand the highest ethical and professional standards from our journalists because this is the only way we can assure the protection of our democratic rights as a people.

We are ready to partner with the Aquino Administration in only one thing: the promotion of good government. This we can do because we have the people on our side and with the help of technology, they now serve as our eyes and ears in all corners of this land. We can help government identify backlogs in public service, corruption in the ranks of its officials and the waste of resources in the pursuit of programs.

There are times when Malacanang will accuse us of sensationalism, unwarranted criticism and negativism. And some of it will be accurate. In the pursuit of ratings, in being a network imbued with a commercial interest, we just like any other media outfit can cross the boundaries. But as some wise man once said, “Freedom means having to watch some disgruntled citizen burn your flag down.” This is not to excuse any excesses but it is to recognize that those very abuses are part and parcel of democracy in our society. It is the price we pay. And the solution is an open and continuing dialogue between government and media.

So how do I define media’s role in today’s society? I opened my remarks today with the thought that everything we need to know we learned in kindergarten. I will end today by recalling a child’s tale immortalized by Hans Christian Andersen. You all remember the tale about the Emperor’s New Clothes. Media’s role is like that of the child… when everyone else is lying through their teeth and exclaiming how grand the emperor’s new clothes are… we need media to be like the child who will exclaim for all to hear that the Emperor is in fact, naked.

We don’t aim to win friends or even keep them in this business. The role of media as we see it in ABS CBN is to serve the Filipino… no matter who in government or the private sector, gets hurt.

A good day to all of you.